Mystery Mondays: DS Kane on Writing Inspiration

Dave 6247.jpgThis week in Mystery Mondays we have DS Kane covert operator turned thriller author. His latest book is MindField, Book 8 of the Spies Lie series.

When a federal government operative asks, “What The Worst That Could Happen?” don’t you want to know?

What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

by DS Kane.

It’s the question all fiction authors need to ask as they write a draft of their manuscript. Every plot twist, character arc, or scene setting should embody some essence of the worst that can happen. Then it’s up to the author to make it even worse.

But, improving your manuscript isn’t all you can get out of asking yourself this question. It also applies to all your life decisions. It’s one thing to take a risk, accepting a worse outcome as a possibility when you seek a bigger return. Surely you’ve encountered situations where you studied a multitude of outcomes for a decision you were about to make and thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

So, let’s assume you were able to craft a page-turning manuscript and recruit the team you thought you needed to get it out into the world (possibly a literary agent, or a team that included a cover designer, a copy editor, a formatter and a marketing person). What’s the worst that could happen? Your nightmares might include that your literary agent can’t sell what you write. Or your cover designer produces a work that fails to attract potential readers. Or your copy editor misses on several key errors that confuse readers. Or that your formatter can’t get the book into a format acceptable for CreateSpace, Kindle, Nook and Smashwords. Or that your marketing person can’t find a way to drive a critical mass of sales to recover your costs.

If you’re a writer, the list of things to worry about keeps getting longer as you encounter success. There are several life lessons I’ve had hit me in the head as I’ve authored my series, and here are my suggestions:

  • Use tools like Fictionary, Hemingway and Grammarly to optimize your draft before you send it to your critique group, test readers, literary agent, or editor.
  • Sit your draft in a computer folder for a few days after you finish it, and do something else. Then, with fresh ideas, pick it up and read it like a reader a few days later.
  • Form a team that can do the things you need done to publish the book. My literary agent (who asked that I not include her name) is legendary. My critique group and test readers know what to look for in my draft and call me on my failings every time. My cover designer, Jeroen Ten Berge has successfully branded my books. My copy editor, Karl Yambert, has saved my posterior worth correction to some things I mistakenly thought were true. My formatter, Barb Elliott of has turned my manuscripts into works of beauty. And, most importantly, my marketing person, Rebecca Berus of, has netted me Amazon Bestseller status with every book I’ve produced.
  • When your cover designer sends you a bright, shiny new cover, make sure that at thumbnail size you can see your title and author name clearly. If you can’t, send it back. Does the cover graphic make sense in lieu of the novel’s name and theme? If not, well…
  • Review the plans you get from your marketer. Make sure they fit the budget you have established, and if not, either request changes or find more money. And be sure to track your sales, to ensure this novel isn’t the start of a long march into financial oblivion.

I’ve learned to manage a team, looking for a specific set of goals. My team members are all much smarter than me. I’m the one-trick pony that can write a bestselling techno-thriller, but I’m not good at the tasks my team easily does well. Don’t try to do it all. You haven’t got the time, and time is your most costly resource.

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I get my ideas from the news. I’ll see a story and think, “This looks like the kind of story that covers a darker one. How bad could that darker one be? Would it make the basis for a good story? What theme would it leave with my readers? Which characters would I cast and what would they have to do that they’ve never done before? Who would have to help them to learn their new skills? Where should I set this story that would deepen the mystery?

Last week, MindField, Book 8 of the Spies Lie series was released to the public on Amazon. While it may take some time for me to see how well it does, I’m already midway into the next book in the series, working title brAInbender. And, yes, as I plan and write this book, I’m asking on every page, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Who Is DS Kane?

Dave 6439.jpgFor a decade, DS Kane served the federal government of the United States as a covert operative without cover. After earning his MBA and earning a faculty position in the Stern Graduate School of Business of NYU, Kane roamed as a management consultant in countries you’d want to miss on your next vacation, “helping” banks that needed a way to cover their financial tracks for money laundering and weapons delivery. His real job was to discover and report these activities to his government handler.

When his cover was blown, he disappeared from Washington and Manhattan and reinvented himself in Northern California, working with venture capitalists and startup companies.

Now he writes fictionalized accounts of his career episodes, as the Amazon bestselling author of the Spies Lie series.



Mystery Mondays: Phyllis Smallman on How to Fit In Writing Time

Today on Mystery Mondays I have the pleasure of hosting Phyllis Smallman.  I met Phyllis at the 2014 Crime Writers Of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards dinner.

Her latest book, LAST CALL, in the Sheri Travis series has just come out. It’s a thrill that it’s finally here. I’ve already read it and loved it.  You might like it, too 🙂

Over to Phyllis…

Write the small spaces.

by Phyllis Smallman

Whenever I give workshops the question that comes up most often is, “How do I find time to write, work, and have a life?”

  1. The first suggestion is don’t focus too hard on THE BOOK. I know, you want it done yesterday, but thinking only about this big block of writing takes the joy out of creating. All the little bits of writing you do, pieces that might never make it into THE BOOK, are equally important. Keep a small notebook with you, one with a cover that makes you smile. This is where you write your bits.


  1. Think of how much time we spend waiting. These are opportunities to focus on a character sketch, a mood, or even a vehicle that you’ll need. What do you smell and hear? Describing a sunset or the whine of the mechanics drill as he changes your tire, those are all terrific practice and necessary for writing well. These writing bits will be your freshest and strongest writing because they are from life. It’s like stocking your cupboard for an emergency. Write in the small spaces. In the dentist’s office do a short description of a person in the waiting room. Surprisingly, sooner or later you will likely use this. You’ll be writing a scene for your novel and need a casual player. There’s no need to interrupt the flow of the story to think up the character because you already have someone to insert. Or describe the dentist’s office. Coffee shops are perfect for these quick sketches. Pick a person and analyze them. How many piercings? Tattoos? Study the server. How much education does he have. Is a temporary job or will he be here forever? Surprising how many times I’ve needed to describe something like this and go blank. That’s when I pull out my trusty sketch book of words. Homeless people make great subjects and what cityscape is complete without one? Think of an artist drawing. That’s what you’re doing, but with words. I once wrote a whole piece about an unknown woman that I liked so much I wove her into the subplot.


  1. Eavesdropping is a good thing. It helps with so many aspects of writing. Not only does it teach you to write dialogue, but it shows you the ebb and flow of conversation. Overheard in a washroom, “Honey, you wouldn’t believe how much it costs to look this cheap.” You can bet that showed up in a book.


  1. Print out the part you need to edit. Waiting in line for the school pickup? Read that chapter out loud. You’ll quickly see the repetitions and the awkward bits. If your tongue stumbles, your reader’s eyes will. If you’re worried about people thinking you’re crazy, hold up your phone as if you are making a life changing call. This has the added benefit of keeping people from interrupting your writing time, because that’s what it is.


  1. And then there’s that three o’clock in the morning time when you can’t sleep. What else do you do at that time of the night? Worrying about your kids or how whacked you’re going to be at work the next day only makes being sleepless worse. And there’s no way you want to fixate on what the guy lying beside you is up to, so now’s the time to work on your plotting. Figure out how you can go deeper into the story. How can you make that plot twist more real? Can you go back and put in some foreshadowing? Can you combine two characters into one to streamline the story. The middle of the night is truly where you get the hard work done, not sitting in front of a screen.


  1. When a great idea comes along write that great idea down in that notebook that’s always handy. You can flesh it out later — maybe put two of these ideas together into one story. Two great ideas in one story, how brilliant is that? Or maybe you’ll create a short story from that idea. Now is not the time to edit or be critical, this is where you dream.


  1. Here’s something I’m a little squeamish to tell you. When I’m reading, if I see a wonderful phrase, I write it down. Think of it as a prompt or an inspiration. Always put it in bold quotes so you know it isn’t yours. You’ll put your own spin on it later. And another little secret, I also collect names from screen credits.


  1. If you write the little places, when you do have a block of time, you’ll be prepared to write. It’s like stretching before you exercise. When you sit down at your computer you don’t waste a minute thinking about what you’ll write because you’ve got this powerful sketch of your protagonist’s father to put in, one that will explain why she can’t commit to a relationship, and a brilliant description of their home, decayed and unloved, that mirrors their relationship.


  1. Coming to THE BOOK prepared to write makes you super-efficient because the hard bit has already been done. You just need to type it in. Sometimes I think we spend more time worrying about writing than we do writing.


  1. One more thing. Don’t tell me you aren’t a writer until you’re published. That’s garbage. You write; therefore, you are a writer. Being published doesn’t bestow some magic mantel on you. You already have it. And it’s a valuable and necessary thing to do. From the time humans sat around fires in caves, we’ve needed story tellers. It doesn’t matter how those stories are delivered, e-books, digital streaming or whispered in the dark, tall tales are necessary for humanity. So, do your bit, write.

Who is Phyllis Smallman?

Phyllis Smallman’s first novel, Margarita Nights, won the inaugural Unhanged Arthur award from the Crime Writers of Canada. Smallman has also won the IPPY golden medal for best mystery and numerous awards from the Florida Writers Association. Her writing has appeared in both Spinetingler Magazine and Omni Mystery Magazine. The Sherri Travis mystery series was chosen by Good Morning America for a summer read in 2010.

Before turning to a life of crime Smallman was a potter. She divides her time between a beach in Florida and an island in the Salish Sea.



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Down in Key West, Sherri Travis and her best friend Marley are looking for a little fun in the sun. Promising to be back for last call, Marley leaves the Rawhide Saloon with an Elvis impersonator.

She doesn’t return. With Hurricane Alma turning toward Key West, and the police saying Marley must be missing for seventy-two hours before they start searching, Sherri and Lexi Divine, a six-foot tall drag queen, hunt for Marley amidst the chaos of the evacuation.


Mystery Mondays: Jennifer Young on Researching Historical Fiction

I’m so pleased to have award winning novelist Jennifer Young on Mystery Mondays. She’s here to talk to us about researching historical fiction – something I’m in awe of.

Hot off the press: Cold Crash (eBook Edition) is free today on Amazon. Why not check it out and post a review for Jennifer?

Researching Tips for Historical Fiction

cold crash front cover
Cinnamon Press Debut Novel Winner

When I started writing Cold Crash, I looked online for music that came out in early spring 1952. I found ‘Tenderly’ by Rosemary Clooney, and it played on a continual loop as I wrote the first chapters of Max Falkland’s story. It even found its way into what eventually became chapter twelve.

As I researched further though, I found that while ‘Tenderly’ came out in the United States in spring 1952, Rosemary Clooney didn’t release any records until years later in the United Kingdom. Max Falkland lived in the UK, so I had a problem. Fortunately, Max is Anglo-American, so I simply added a reference to her grandmother posting the record to her from America.

I told this story at a reading I did last week, and another author and friend Helen Gordon asked if I ever fudged my historical details, pointing out that my obsession with historical accuracy sounded more like creative nonfiction than fiction. Cold Crash is undoubtedly fiction – I’ve never flown a plane and I’m certainly not an archaeologist – but the facts represented in the novel are as accurate as I can make them.

Coming from an academic background, I consider it vital to get those details right. I love reading historical fiction, and I adore the details of the past that makes the world rich and compelling. I don’t want to be distracted from the mystery or character development by wondering if one tidbit of information is correct. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with research. Here’s some advice from my experience researching and writing about spring 1952.

Research broad brush stroke history first. I started with overviews of the 1950s – reading books ranging from Robert Opie’s 1950s Scrapbook to Jessica Mann’s The Fifties Mystique. I also read about the Korean War. Max has just come out of mourning as the novel opens, for her brother who was shot down over Korea. (I had to supplement knowledge gleaned from a childhood of watching M*A*S*H!)

While you’re writing, don’t disappear into the internet to check one obscure fact. I did this far too regularly, and you end up wasting precious writing time. You can always correct a historical fact, but if you never write, you have nothing to correct! In one case in Cold Crash, I left a mistaken detail in place. Max’s friend Emma says it’s nice to bake scones with dried fruit again, when Max has provided it. In April 1952, dried fruit was off rationing, but I decided to leave the dialogue in, as Emma doesn’t have the money to splurge on dried fruit.

If you have an area that particularly interests you, save that for last. It sounds counterintuitive – it might have been the reason you chose your historical period. However, a real danger exists that you will research that one area forever, and never write. I deliberately chose to do this with fashion. After I had a complete first draft of the novel, I went to the British Library and poured over fashion magazines for 1952. I loved looking at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue issues, the very ones that Max would have read, seeing the ads she would have seen. It felt almost like shopping – I needed a ball gown for this scene, a dinner dress for this one.

This worked well for other areas too. Train travel is not my passion, but I knew I needed details of both the look of the LMS trains from London to Oban. An Illustrated History of LMS Coaches gave me pictures of the upholstery on the LMS train line, as well as the sleeping compartments. The microfiche version of Bradshaw’s Guide allowed me to find out the timetable of trains going between London and Oban – and that the reverse train didn’t run on weekends at all. I reorganised the timings of the novel to allow Max to travel on a Friday. Would anyone have checked? Probably not, but that detail mattered to me.

My final piece of advice is to enjoy the research – and also take it seriously!


Who is Jennifer Young?

Jennifer Young University of Hertfordshire. Photography by Pete Stevens ©Jennifer Young was born in a small textile town in North Carolina, USA and moved to the UK in 2001. She has since completed a PhD, become the daughter-in-law of a Catholic priest and gained British citizenship. Her degrees are from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Cardiff University and the University of Southampton. She is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and an Associate Dean of the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire. Jennifer lives in North London with her husband and daughter.

Her novel Cold Crash won the Cinnamon Press Debut Novel Prize.


Buy Cold Crash

Cold Crash

For archaeologist Maxine ‘Max’ Falkland, life in early-50s London is difficult enough as cold crash front covershe tries to move on from the death of her brother, an RAF pilot shot down over Korea. But, when she meets John Knox things get more complicated — before they get outright dangerous.

Flying her light plane to Scotland, Max overhears whispered arguments in Russian coming from the next-door room and sees lights across the moors that appear to answer flashes from the sea. Add the mysterious malfunction of her plane and she has a lot to confide when she encounters the enigmatic Richard Ash, a local landowner and recluse. But when Knox unexpectedly reappears and a dive goes disastrously wrong, Max must act fast as she finds herself in the middle of a Soviet military plot.

Cold Crash is the first of four novels that follows Max through archaeology and espionage from 1952 to 1953.

Thanks for reading…

Mystery Mondays: Heather Weidner on The Writing Life

Today on Mystery Mondays, we welcome author Heather Weidner to share her advice on becoming a writer and what she learned along the way. I connected with Heather because of the Pens, Paws, and Claws Website and Blog. If you like writing, and you like cats or dogs, this is the blog for you!

Over to Heather…

Key Things about the Writing Life

by Heather Weidner.

secret lives private eyes cover - webWhen I dreamed of being a writer, I had visions of working at my desk (at a house that overlooked the beach), doing TV interviews, and cashing royalty checks. I never realized how many marketing and other tasks are needed to sell books.

My debut novel launched in 2016, and the second in the Delanie Fitzgerald Mystery series is slated for mid-November 2017. For the first book, I planned a launch celebration and did interviews, author spotlights, and guest blog posts for 35 sites. I did a Facebook hop, a Goodreads give-away, radio interviews, and podcast interviews. I do about 50 book signings and presentations each year. And I am also a full-time IT manager, so writing and marketing get shuffled in with all the other demands of everyday life.

Here are some key things I’ve learned over the years about what it really means to be a writer.

  1. Publishing is a business. The goal is to sell books.
  2. Make sure that you’re writing your next book.
  3. Always be professional. Be on time and strive to meet all deadlines.
  4. Keep one master calendar for all your events and deadlines. Mine helps me stay organized with all the other parts of my life.
  5. Writing is a lot of work. The first few “sloppy” drafts need a lot of work.
  6. Build relationships through your social media platform. They make a difference.
  7. Set a blogging and social media schedule that works for you. These sites need care and feeding, but they shouldn’t be a 24×7 job.
  8. Everyone has an opinion. Comments and reviews can sting, but learn what you can from them and then move on.
  9. Try to write something every day.
  • Keep a notebook or electronic notes of names and story ideas. You never know when you’ll encounter something that’ll work in your next book or story.
  • Look at your social media posts. Make sure that they’re not all “buy my book.” Make sure that you share others’ celebrations on your social media sites.
  • It’s key for writers to network, market, and build their platforms. Just make sure you leave enough time for writing.
  • Collect email addresses at your events for your newsletter’s mailing list. Get a clipboard and make sure you take it with you to all events.
  • Writing is often lonely. Find a group of kindred souls. Look for other authors or groups who will assist and support you. (I am so fortunate to have my Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia, Sisters in Crime National, Guppies, and James River Writer friends.)
  • Find beta readers or a critique group to help you revise and edit your work.
  • Remind yourself that you do not have to do everything. There are lots of opportunities, but you can burn out if you’re constantly on the go. Take care of yourself.
  • Learn from your mistakes. Make note of how you’d do it differently next time.
  • I try a lot of events and marketing ideas. If it doesn’t work for me, I see what I can learn from it and move on.
  • Order bookmarks and postcards. Make sure you always have them with you.
  • Take pictures at your events or on your adventures to share on your website or social media platforms.
  • Review your website from time to time to ensure your content and photos are current.
  • Review your social media biographies or descriptions to ensure that they are current.
  • Make sure to back up your computer files. It’s devastating when you lose your work.
  • Keep your author headshot current. (People will comment if your picture is ten years old and no longer looks like you.)
  • Most of my correspondence is done via email. I keep lots of folders to ensure I can find the email when I need it. I also add new contacts to my address book immediately, so I don’t lose them.
  • Keep all your receipts and be diligent about tracking your mileage. You’ll be glad when it’s tax time.
  • When you schedule an event, ask about where you’ll be seated and what will be provided (especially if it is an outdoor event).
  • Keep a box of books in the trunk of your car. I’ve encountered times when the bookseller couldn’t get books in time for an event. Also, at several events, the bookseller sold out, so it was nice that I had some extras to provide on consignment.
  • Don’t give up. The writing life is a challenge, and it’s difficult sometimes, but it is worth it. I get excited every time that box of books arrives.
  • Take time to celebrate your wins and successes.

Who Is Heather Weidner?

Heather WeidnerHeather Weidner’s short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series and 50 Shades of Cabernet. She is a member of Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia, Guppies, Lethal Ladies Write, and James River Writers. The Tulip Shirt Murders is the second novel in her Delanie Fitzgerald series. Secret Lives and Private Eyes debuted in 2016.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.

Heather earned her BA in English from Virginia Wesleyan College and her MA in American literature from the University of Richmond. Through the years, she has been a technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager. She blogs regularly with the Lethal Ladies and Pens, Paws, and Claws.

The Tulip Shirt Murders

TheTulipShirtMurdersFinalPrivate investigator Delanie Fitzgerald, and her computer hacker partner, Duncan Reynolds, are back for more sleuthing in The Tulip Shirt Murders. When a local music producer hires the duo to find out who is bootlegging his artists’ CDs, Delanie uncovers more than just copyright thieves. And if chasing bootleggers isn’t bad enough, local strip club owner and resident sleaze, Chaz Smith, pops back into Delanie’s life with more requests. The police have their man in a gruesome murder, but the loud-mouthed strip club owner thinks there is more to the open and shut case. Delanie and Duncan link a series of killings with no common threads. And they must put the rest of the missing pieces together before someone else is murdered.


The Tulip Shirt Murders is a fast-paced mystery that appeals to readers who like a strong female sleuth with a knack for getting herself in and out of humorous situations such as larping and trading elbow jabs with roller derby queens.


Contact Information

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Mystery Mondays: Madeline McEwen with Guidance, Advice, and Jokes

This week on Mystery Mondays, it’s my pleasure to host author Madeline McEwen. I “met” Madeline when she joined the Imajin Books team this year.

Her novelette, Tied Up With Strings, will be published by Imajin Qwickies on the 11th December 2017. So keep an eye out for it!

Over to Madeline…

 Guidance, Advice, and Jokes

By Madeline McEwen

Thanks for the invitation, Kristina. I gave some thought about what to offer your readers: guidance, advice, jokes?

 Guidance first–how about that infernal problem—procrastination. Have no fear, I have several solutions whether you suffer from writer’s block or information overload. Both prevent productivity. If you find your time frittered away on social media and frivolous distractions then I am here to help.

Don’t get me wrong, social media is a Godsend to the isolated hermits of this world—the sparks keeping us connected, grounded, and alert to change. However, just like other addictions, moderation if our watchword. Instead, get your Internet fix—your reward–after completing specific, measurable goals. Make yourself a numbered and prioritized list, such as: one hour of writing / editing or 500 words / three loads of laundry / replace the air filter / de-mat the dog.

If you find you’re still dithering, use a paper template to make a 3-D cube, throw the di, and then do it.

Advice: buff your humor muscles as frequently as possible.

Joke: I love “knock knock” jokes, but Debra Purdy Kong got there first.


Knock 1



Knock 2


Here are a couple of mine:-


Who Is Madeline McEwen:

Madeline photoMadeline McEwen is an ex-pat from the UK, bi-focaled and technically challenged. She and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer’s. In her free time, she walks with two dogs and chases two cats with her nose in a book and her fingers on the keyboard.

Her novelette, Tied Up With Strings, will be published by Imajin Qwickies on the 11th December 2017, the first in the new series–The Serebral Seniors–celebrating the witty sparks of a ripening generation.

You can find me here:-!/MadMcEwen



DaveButler_profilepicThis week on Mystery Mondays, I’m pleased to host author, Dave Butler. Dave lives a couple of hours from my home in British Columbia, Canada.

I’ve hosted authors from all over the world, and this is the closest one has been in distance. Kinda cool, I think.

And congratulations are in order. Full Curl was short listed for the 2015 Crime Writers of Canada Unhanged Arthur Ellis award for best unpublished crime fiction. Now Full Curl is published by Dundurn Press!

So over to Dave…


By Dave Butler

Paying it forward: “beneficiary of a good deed repaying it to others instead of to the original benefactor.”

 Coming to mystery writing from the world of business, I was ready for the worst. In the list of literary genres, mystery/thriller is second only to romance/erotica in sales (there’s a cross-over opportunity there, but I digress…), so I knew that the potential for fame and fortune was very high (😉). I expected that writers would jostle with each other in dog-consumes-dog, winner-take-all battles, that trade secrets would be held close to protective chests, that there’d be fisticuffs for the right to be noticed by a tiny pool of hungry agents and publishers, and that despairing writers would pounce on every opportunity to trip up competitors and then step over (or on) their cold corpses to get ahead.

And with many of us living lonely solitary lives, with long hours and little in the way of validation or gratification, I assumed that the potential was also high that I’d be interacting with people who were one rejection slip away from being basement-dwelling serial killers.

However, I was wrong. It has been a pleasant surprise to discover that it’s not like that at all (with the possible exception of the serial killer potential … that I’m still not sure about…). Instead, I’ve found writers, particularly in the mystery/thriller world, to be incredibly gracious, open and friendly, and welcoming to newcomers.

In my own situation, I was lucky to have Full Curl, my first novel, shortlisted for the Unhanged Arthur Award in 2015. I had no idea what to expect when I attended the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis awards banquet in Toronto. While I didn’t win (way to go, Elle Wild!), I was immediately overwhelmed by how welcome I felt.

As an example, I shared dinner that evening with Ian Hamilton (author of the successful Ava Lee series). He was patient with my rookie questions, and kind in sharing experience and advice. In a Toronto bar later that evening, over a glass or two of Forty Creek whisky, he asked me the pivotal question that then played a role in a multi-book deal for me. “Why don’t you write a series?” he asked.

That same pattern has been repeated many times. I see it when I share a coffee with other mystery writers, when I read communications from the Crime Writers of Canada, and when I attend workshops and conferences. It’s almost as though “paying it forward” has become what we do in our genre.

One could argue that holding everything close to our chests might mean that we can grab more of the pie for ourselves. But I’ve realized that growing the genre, both in readers and writers, is good for all.

It’s clear that deciding to “pay it forward,” or not, is very much an individual decision. Perhaps it’s a moral and ethical responsibility, but it depends on your own perspective and your own experience. And it doesn’t mean spending so much time helping others that you miss deadlines, or lose the muse. But by sharing information on the writing life, on the business of writing, we all move ahead.

For me, there’s no doubt that I’ll “pay it forward” to recognize the kindness and generosity of those who have helped me. But at the same time, if I meet a writer who invites me in to see his/her pile of rejection letters, I refuse to go in their basement!

Who is Dave Butler?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADave Butler is a mystery/thriller writer from Cranbrook, BC who is the author of the Jenny Willson mystery series (Dundurn Press). Full Curl, the first in the series, in on store shelves now.

He’s a forester and biologist living in Cranbrook, British Columbia, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. His writing and photography have appeared in numerous Canadian publications. He’s a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal winner, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. When he’s not writing, Dave is professionally involved in sustainable tourism at local, national and international levels and he travels extensively.

Mystery Mondays: Amy Reade on Setting

HighlandPerilToday, we are celebrating tomorrow’s release of Highland Peril by author Amy Reade.   Congratulations, Amy!

Amy hosts a fabulous blog called Reade and Write. Today she’s talking to us about one of my favorite subjects: SETTING.

Setting the Scene

by Amy Reade

Whether I’m on a panel or at a book signing or visiting a book club, one of the questions I’m frequently asked is whether I consider setting to be a character in my books. I get the question so often that I’ve started putting it in the back of each book as one of the discussion topics.

Here’s my short answer (and yes, I’m answering a question with another question): would the book be the same if it were set someplace else? If no, then I would consider the setting a character. If yes, then setting is probably not one of the characters, however important it may be.

Novels with a strong setting tend to be my favorite books. The main reasons I read are to learn and to be entertained. When a book has a strong atmosphere and sense of place combined with a strong plot, not only do I lose myself in the story, but I also get the opportunity to learn about a new place (or learn more about a place I already know). This is even true for places that don’t actually exist, such as a fantasy world or a fictional town. Two examples that immediately spring to mind are Hogwarts (from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series), and Loch Dubh (from M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series).

So how can a setting be a character? Let’s break down some of the qualities of well-drawn characters. Such characters generally have at least three components: personality, emotion or lack thereof, and the ability to change or move the plot along.

In some books, setting has those same three characteristics. Personality, emotion, and ability to move the plot forward can be indefinable when applied to a place rather than a person, but they are easily understood through examples.

Just as with a human character, a setting’s “personality” is its essence. Personality includes a place’s heritage, its culture, its climate; in other words, its specialness. Take, for example, a book set in New Orleans. New Orleans is a place of music, of storied cuisine, and of sultry heat. In any book I’ve ever read that takes place in New Orleans, at least one of those three components are essential to the plot. Such a book could never be set in Chicago without losing its essence.

And how about emotion? In much the same way a human character expresses emotion, a setting can be cheerful, spooky, stormy, listless, or almost any other adjective you can think of. This notion can be applied equally to any setting: towns and cities, houses, islands, boats, schools, hospitals, mountain tops, etc. You get the point.

When I think of a setting’s emotion, often what comes to mind is weather. Weather can play a huge role in a story—think of how wintry weather and blizzard conditions can affect the outcome of a particular plot. That same plot isn’t going to work as well if it’s set in a place where there are no blizzards; in other words, the frigid, blizzard-prone setting is essential to the story.

And when it comes to moving the plot forward, setting has the ability to do that as well as any character. In my first novel, Secrets of Hallstead House, the main character, Macy, can’t swim. The setting of the story is the Thousand Islands region of northern New York, on an island. When a person who can’t swim is put on an island, you can imagine the dread that can develop. And that story couldn’t have taken place, say, on a busy barrier island along the eastern seaboard—it had to take place on a small, isolated island in a region where the weather can be harsh and unpredictable. Just like a human character. There are several instances in Secrets of Hallstead House in which the direction of the plot is determined by the very nature of the island setting.

Now for my favorite part of this post. I’ve made a short list of some of my favorite books which feature setting as one of the characters. Though you may not be familiar with all of them, you are no doubt familiar with most of the titles. I am confident you’ll agree that setting is one of the main characters in each of these books. Remember, ask yourself this question: could this story have taken place anywhere else without losing its very essence?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: the setting is an absolutely essential part of each of these books, both of which take place in the American south. I would go so far as to say these books wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the American south.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: the setting of this book, the Cornish coast of England, is reflected in every action the characters take. Just like the characters, the cliffs and moors, the mansion, and the grounds in Rebecca are stormy, moody, and dark. The book would be fundamentally different if it took place anywhere else.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri: everyone knows the story of the little girl who went up the mountain to live with her gruff grandfather. The mountain is as important to the book as the main characters: Heidi loves the mountain just as she loves her grandfather and her friend Peter; the mountain provides a stark and necessary contrast to the bleak city where she lives temporarily. The story just wouldn’t be the same if Heidi lived in an area that was simply rural without being mountainous.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: if you’re not familiar with this book, the majority of the action takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The main characters, a brother and sister, run away from home and live in the museum for a time, trying to solve a mystery they find there. Whenever I think of this book, it’s the museum that comes to mind, not the human characters, not the mansion in the suburbs where they find someone who helps them in their quest, not the streets of New York City. It’s the museum—a setting-character if ever there was one.

Black Amber by Phyllis A. Whitney: this book, probably my favorite of Whitney’s works, is set in Turkey. The plot and setting are inextricably linked—you can’t have one without the other. The story wouldn’t be the same if it were set in, say, Michigan (not that there’s anything wrong with Michigan).

Finally, to my new book, Highland Peril, which comes out tomorrow. As in all my novels, the setting in Highland Peril is one of the book’s most important elements. The main characters live in a little village called Cauld Loch, and though I had to send them to London and Edinburgh for short stints, they always return home to the Highlands. The beauty, the majesty, and the rugged landscape are as important to the story as any character. If you get a chance to read the book, I hope you’ll agree.

Please share your thoughts about books with setting-characters. What are your favorites? Which ones stick in your mind?

Kristina, thank you so much for having me here today. I love the Mystery Monday posts because they make me think, and I hope I’ve done that for your readers.

Who Is Amy Reade?

Amy M. ReadeAmy M. Reade is a cook, chauffeur, household CEO, doctor, laundress, maid, psychiatrist, warden, seer, teacher, and pet whisperer. In other words, a wife, mother, and recovering attorney. But she also writes (how could she not write with that last name?) and is the author of The Malice Series (The House on Candlewick Lane, Highland Peril, and Murder in Thistlecross) and three standalone books, Secrets of Hallstead House, The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor, and House of the Hanging Jade. She lives in southern New Jersey, but loves to travel. Her favorite places to visit are Scotland and Hawaii and when she can’t travel she loves to read books set in far-flung locations.

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